Thursday, August 11, 2016

"An Arbitrary Action, Contrary to Law, Inconsistent with Liberty": A Hot Press in Newport, 1765 (Part IV)

1770 British Press Gang print
(clothing more typical of 1760s)
Relations between Newport, Rhode Island and representatives of the Royal Navy deteriorated throughout the month of May, 1765 to such a degree that the Town was practically under blockade by His Majesty's ship Maidstone and her ship's boats.  The navy's customs enforcement mission in Narragansett Bay had been obstructed at every turn by local authorities and through extralegal crowd action in support of customs evasion.  Perhaps in retaliation, Maidstone now began stopping and searching vessels large and small entering Newport, often pressing seamen in the process. 

The impact of these tactics on trade and commerce, as well as the lives or ordinary Newporters, was deeply felt.  A letter published in the  Newport Mercury on June 10th, 1765 (written by a writer identified only by the initials O.G.) paints a picture of a community besieged:

"[the]Severity exercised by the Officers and People of the Maidstone, which, together with the Behaviour of this Set of Myrmedons, for four of five weeks past, who have visited every Vessel entering the Harbour, our wood Boats, and the very smallest Coasters not excepted, to impress Men, and have generally taken all that did not belong to the town of Newport, as Capt. Antrobus had given his Word to the Sherriff, that he would take none of those; yet the Consequence of these arbitrary and Illegal Measures, especially in Time of profound Peace, proves as fatal to the Inhabitants of the Town: we already feel the Effects; Seaman’s Wages advanced nearly one Dollar and a half per Month; our Wood Wharves almost clear of Wood; The Coasters from the neighbouring Governments shunning our Port, to escape the hottest Press ever known in this Town; and if a speedy Stop does not take Place, the Lamentable Condition of the poorer Part of the Inhabitants, the approaching Winter; will be truly Affecting, as in May, June, July and August, the Town is mostly supplied with Wood...– Our Fish market, a considerable Support of the Town, is greatly distressed, as few of the Fishermen dare venture out, it being reported none shall escape the Impress.

detail from "Abandoning Ramillies" by R. Dodd (1783)

In short order, coastal trade came close to a standstill, the only shipping entering port being those engaged in the transatlantic and West Indies trade that had not yet heard of the increased risk on impressment, setting the stage for the inevitable escalation of this standoff to open resistance to the navy and crowd violence.

On June 4th, 1765 - The King's birthday, a Newport vessel arrived in harbor at the end of a year-long slaving voyage and was promptly intercepted by Maidstone almost as soon as she made port.  This was the brigantine "Ospray", owned by merchant Naphtali Hart who was a prominent member of Newport's Jewish community.   Kyle Dalton, who writes the British Tars blog and will be portraying the Ospray's Master Richard Champlin during our upcoming recreation of this episode on August 27th in Newport, has written an excellent piece about what we know about the brigantine and her voyage to Africa and return via Jamaica.  What happened after she returned to Newport sparked a riot.

The letter writer in the Newport Mercury declared;

"The Cause of this Mischief was, the Officers of the Maidstone, a few Hours before, impressing all the men out of a Brigantine from Africa, last from Jamaica, after some small Resistance made by the Crew, and not a little Severity exercised by the Officers and People of the Maidstone..."

Maidstone's Captain Charles Antrobus, who was away at the time, naturally gave a different interpretation in his account to the Admiralty in London, summarized by the Admiralty clerks as follows:

"The report was that the cause of the outrage was the impressment of some men belonging to the colony; but Capt. Antrobus thinks it was entirely owing to the [customs] seizure made by him. Out of the impressment a dispute arose between the Governor and Capt. Antrobus, the former claiming jurisdiction over the King’s ships in harbor, and the latter repudiating his claim."

Whatever the spark, all seven of the crew of the Ospray, Master Champlin excepted, were overcome by the press gang and taken into naval service on Maidstone. The irony of slavers being themselves enslaved probably occurred to few of their contemporaries. Some of these men were certainly from the community, though, and feelings ran high. By early evening a very large crowd had gathered at the waterfront, where one of the ship's boats had brought 2nd Lieutenant William Jenkins ashore, and took matters into their own hands.

There was a tradition of violent resistance to Royal Navy impressment throughout the Atlantic world. A common element was to destroy the means used by the press gangs to bring their captives back to their ships, and such was now the case in Newport. Lieutenant Jenkins was overwhelmed and his boat seized by an angry mob that Governor Ward would later downplay as "consisting altogether of the dregs of the people and a number of boys and negroes.” It was a stock response in such cases for the authorities to claim that "no person of the least note was concerned in the riot", but there were usually instigators of considerably higher status who actively supported the rioting.

The Newport Mercury's letter writer described the event this way:

"TUESDAY Evening last, about Nine O’Clock, his Majesty’s Ship the Maidstone’s boat was taken from one of the wharfs, by a mob consisting chiefly of Sailors, Boys and Negroes, to the Number above about Five hundred, haul’d up through Queen-Street to the Common, at the upper End of the Town, where they burnt her, in the Circle of the exasperated Tumult, which I believe every sensible Man in Town now regrets, and am persuaded was out of the Power of the Authority to Prevent her Fate, as it was but a few Minutes from the Time of their taking her to her being in Flames."

The correspondent "O. G." continued:

"...The Measures taken by the Rabble is by no Means to be countenanced, much less approved of; yet it is to be hoped, the Authority, or the principal Part of the Gentlemen in Town, will interpose in its Relief, before our Distresses are more sensibly felt, or it’s past Remedy for this Season, either by persuasive Arguments with Capt. Antrobus, to desist pursuing or allowing the unpopular Methods of manning His Majesty’s Ship, by impressing in the very Bowels of the Town; or, if this should fail, and Excursion of every Power which ought, and must, necessarily take Place, for Self-preservation , for Safety of Life and Property.”

Governor Ward was out of town that evening, but on his return he dispatched the High Sheriff to  Maidstone where he found 1st Lieutenant Cuthbert Baines in command during Captain Antrobus's absence. The Governor subsequently wrote to Antrobus on June 11th that he has insisted on

"the dismission of several inhabitants of this Colony, lately impressed and detained on board said ship, contrary to law. In return to which, he acquainted me that it was not in his power to comply with my order; but that he hourly expected your return, and was very confident you would give me sufficient satisfaction upon that head.”

In the same letter, Governor Ward noted that the Sheriff had brought back Lt. Baine's written "account of the illegal proceedings of some persons of this town in taking and burning a boat belonging to His Majesty’s ship Maidstone, and abusing Mr. Jenkins, the second lieutenant."

Thus began a correspondence between the Governor and the Captain that lead to neither one's satisfaction. Ward, whose letters are far more readily available to researchers than those written by Antrobus, was most emphatic that the navy was in the wrong:

"Sir, I must observe, that the impressing of Englishmen is, in my opinion, an arbitrary action, contrary to law, inconsistent with liberty, and to be justified only by very great urgent necessity.”
“But as the ship under your command lay moored in the harbor of an English Colony, always ready to afford you all assistance necessary for his Majesty’s service, I could not conceive any possible reason sufficient to justify the severe and rigorous impress carried on by your people in this port.”
“You assert that while your ship is afloat, the civil authority of this Colony does not extend to and cannot operate within her.”

“But I must be of opinion, Sir, that while she lies in the body of a County, as she then did, and still does, within the body of the County of Newport, all her officers and men are within the jurisdiction of this Colony, and ought to conform themselves to the laws thereof and while I have the honor to be in the administration, I shall endeavor to assert and maintain the liberties and privileges of His Majesty’s subjects and the honor, dignity and jurisdiction of the Colony.

While each man disputed whose behavior had been improper and whose actions were legal, problems in Newport continued.   After several weeks of this standoff, Captain Antrobus released those pressed men who belonged to Newport but retained those from other colonies.  While the "Ospray"'s men were still detained, the Masters of various vessels who attempted to bring impressed men on Maidstone their pay were, according to "O.G.", treated with all imaginable Contempt and Disrespect...Others that went on board to carry Seamen their Chests and Bedding, had their Boat turn’d adrift, and themselves put under Confinement; and detained all Night."  The navy may have perceived this incident differently, believing that evidence of the higher wages paid in the merchant service might entice other sailors to desert.  

Neither was Newport through with mob action as the crisis continued. One again, 2nd Lieutenant William Jenkins was in the thick of things, and again bore the brunt of the community's anger. A local merchant, Christopher Champlin (undoubtedly related in some way to the Master of the Ospray), held the contract to supply His Majesty's warships while in Harbor. According to a later Admiralty report, an attempt by Champlin to bring supplies to Maidstone was opposed onshore by "a merchant who, at the head of 40 or 50 men, endeavoured to prevent the merchant who contracted for the victualling of the King’s ships from sending some provisions on board."

Captain Antrobus would protest to Governor Ward that Mr. Jenkins was at risk of his life had not two other passing gentlemen intervened, but the Governor brushed him off, saying in yet another letter written in March, 1766 that both Lieutenant Jenkins and Mr. Champlin had full recourse to the local courts but had failed to act upon it.

"Of the other tumultuous proceedings mentioned in the close of your letter, I can recollect nothing at present, except your representation of Mr. Champlin’s being surrounded by a mob, &c., upon which I must observe that if that gentleman had been insulted and forcibly prevented from supplying the King’s ships with provisions, and had made application to me on the occasion, I should have immediately have given him all necessary aid, protection and assistance; but as he never made any complaint to me; I conclude that he has received no injury, and that the behavior of the persons concerned in the matter proceeded wholly from the resentment which they conceived, on the inhabitants of the town being impressed and detained on board the Maidstone, and not from any real design of distressing any of his Majesty’s servants, and the uninterrupted manner in which the ship hath since been supplied, confirms me in the sentiments I then entertained of this matter. "

The customs enforcement and impressment struggle in which Maidstone played so significant a part in Newport primed the pump for even more disturbance and crowd action that year Within a month, rioting would break out in Newport once more, this time over the impending implementation of the Stamp Act. Maidstone, however, soon left the scene, sailing to Halifax for repairs on or about August 19th, 1765.

detail of a chart of the coast of New England showing the south shoal of George's Bank
 Postscript:     Captain Antrobus would later command His Majesty's ship Jason but died of disease in March, 1769 at Antigua.  Master Timothy Doggett of the Sloop Polly died that same year at his home in Dighton, Massachusetts.  John Robinson played a prominent target of the stamp tax riot in Newport, and went on to notoriety in Boston. Lieutenant Baines remained in service, but only briefly commanded his own vessel before retiring to the half pay list in 1774.  In 1809, still in retirement, he was senior enough to finally be made Post Captain, dying the following year.

On the south shoal of George's Bank in 1765, Maidstone's tender, a small American schooner, foundered with the loss of all 12 hands.   This was at least the third ship's boat that Maidstone lost since Antrobus took command - the first sunk or smashed during the crossing from England in 1763, the second consumed in flames in Newport in 1765. I will have to wait until I can read the log books and ship's muster from the Admiralty archives to be certain, but it is quite possible that this loss of the tender happened during Maidstone's passage to Halifax that August.  It would have been either a midshipman's or a junior lieutenant's command.  2nd Lieutenant William Jenkins disappears from the available records after the incidents in Newport.  Perhaps it was he who commanded the little schooner that was lost on the Banks. 

"An Arbitrary Action, Contrary to Law, Inconsistent with Liberty": Customs Enforcement and Resistance, 1765 (Part III)

Detail from "New England from Chatham Harbour to Narragansett Bay showing Buzzards Bay"
(1779) Chart by
J.F.W. Des Barres & Lt. John Knight
His Majesty's Ship  Maidstone overwintered in Newport's normally ice-free harbor during the unusually cold winter of 1764-1765, replacing the 20-gun sixth rate Squirrel (1755). Maidstone's Captain Charles Antrobus could expect little thawing in naval relations with local authorities, merchants and seafaring interests in the Town, and was forwarded that his customs enforcement mission would be resisted. Actual armed conflict had already broken out over the navy's presence the previous summer, when a waterfront mob attacked and drove off a landing party from the six-gun Schooner Saint John (purchased just a month before in Boston).

The navy was in pursuit of a deserter who may well have been a pressed man, but the citizens were also upset about a recent customs seizure and the alleged theft of some chickens by three men from the schooner.  Pelting the sailors with stones, the large crowd injured a number of the men in Saint John's boat and
took a midshipman hostage. Then some of the mob took up muskets and pursued the retreating longboat back toward the Saint John in a sloop. Before the end of the affair, the colonial gunners at the Fort George on Goat Island even fired cannon (one shot allegedly piercing her Mainsail) at Saint John before Squirrel moved up to assist the navy schooner.

When Captain Antrobus arrived at Newport December, 1764, Governor Samuel Ward sought assurances that he would refrain from pressing Newporters and keep Maidstone's impressment activities offshore, preferably beyond the jurisdiction of the Colony. Whatever concessions might have been agreed to initially soon evaporated in the face of both active and passive interference with customs enforcement by local authorities as well as through crowd action.

Customs seizures made by the navy, similar to prizes taken in time of war, went through a legal condemnation process at a vice-admiralty court on shore. Confiscated cargos and vessels deemed in violation of customs and excise laws sold by the authorities and shares in the proceeds apportioned accord to the jurisdictions involved, which in North America might include the colonial governor and Admiral Corville in Halifax along with the Exchequer and the Crown.

It was rarely a straightforward process, with owners and seamen often counter-suing customs and naval officers for damages and with claims of unlawful seizure. Although the Collectors and Controllers of customs were appointed by the British government and backed by the navy, in charter colonies like Rhode Island the governor, High Sheriff and vice-admiralty judge were all local men elected to their positions and were often uncooperative in customs cases. Captain Antrobus soon had reason to consider the local authorities throughout Narragansett Bay to be completely unsupportive of Maidstone 's customs enforcement activities. Two incidents in later winter and early Spring, 1765 made that point very clear.

John Robinson, appointed Collector of Customs at Newport in 1764, was a man of a different stripe than his predecessors who had been willing to accept enormous bribes in exchange for lax enforcement of import duties and trade restrictions. Along with Customs Comptroller John Nicholl, he coordinated with the navy to aggressively interdict smugglers in Narragansett Bay and bring cases to court.

In late February, 1765, aided by Maidstone's 2nd Lieutenant William Jenkins, these men intercepted two vessels suspected of smuggling molasses in contravention of the Sugar Act. They were the brigantine Wainscott and the sloop Nelly. One of Wainscott's principal owners was Elisha Brown of Providence, a close ally of Governor Ward and soon to be elected Lieutenant Governor himself, while Nelly belonged to Thomas Greene, who was part of a prominent Quaker family in the Colony. According to the customs officials, "it was notorious that ["Wainscott" and "Nelly"] had run cargoes of molasses", but they encountered numerous obstacles trying to prove their case in the local Admiralty court.

Admiralty Judge John Andrews set a court date for the case just days after the customs men brought their charges. Robinson and Nicholl were aghast, writing the Court on March 10, 1765: "You can't suppose it possible for us, in the space of three Days, to procure proper proofs to Support these Suits; And we must Desire of you to Urge the Necessity of an Adjournment of the Court for at least a Fortnight." In response to this, Judge Andrews gave them a single week. When the Court reconvened, the Marshall failed to issue summonses to witnesses and, the Customs men complained bitterly the Advocate "Absolutely Declined for Reasons known only to himself." The plaintiffs were left to represent themselves before the Court, but without supporting evidence the defendants were acquitted. This was not the end of the affair, with suits and counter suits continuing until 1767 when Judge Andrews brought a £10,000 defamation suit against Robinson, and the latter only escaped imprisonment through appointment to another customs position in Boston.  

L. F. Tantillo - "Salt Marsh Sanctuary"

The second case involved the sloop Polly, owned by Job Smith of Taunton, Massaschusetts. Polly arrived in Newport under the command of Master Timothy Doggett or Daggett on April 2nd with a cargo of molasses from Surinam in the West Indies Although her home port was up the Taunton River from Narragansett Bay in Massachusetts, Newport's customs house had jurisdiction. Master Doggett declared 63 casks of molasses and paid 3p/gallon in customs duty, then proceeded up the bay and into the Taunton River. As a hogshead at this time was 63 gallons, this was a conveniently round number. On April 4th, Robinson examined Doggett's customs declaration and, suspecting the report "was not just", brought the matter to the attention of Captain Antrobus.

Instead of dispatching a junior officer with a ship's boat to overtake the Polly, Captain Antrobus seems to have taken on this task personally. Accompanied only by a skeleton crew from Maidstone, Collector Robinson with his servant, Daniel Guthridge, and the Searcher of Customs Nicholas Lechmere, Captain Antrobus overtook Polly far upriver on April 6th near Dighton, Massachusetts. On boarding her they found their suspicions had been correct and twice as many casks of molasses in the hold as declared on the manifest.

Discovery meant that Robinson could libel the undeclared portion of the cargo and the sloop as customs seizures, but he was without the immediate means to secure his prize. No one in Dighton was willing to assist the handful of customs and navy men, so Robinson and Antrobus were compelled to return to Newport and dispatch a prize crew, leaving only Guthridge and Lechmere to keep watch over the at anchor offshore. By the time a naval detachment was sent back up river on April 8th by Captain Antrobus, the customs enforcement effort had been overtaken by events back in Dighton.

It did not help that there was a conveniently located tavern not far from shore. On April 7th, Lechmere and Guthridge rowed themselves over to quench their thirst, but found their skiff gone when they sought to return to Polly, 100 yards out in the river. At nightfall, about 40 local men "with blackened faces" sailed over to Polly and offloaded her entire cargo of molasses. Stripping her anchors and fittings, these interventionists then ran Polly ashore at high tide and stranded her on the riverbank. Neither could Lechmere and Guthridge get any support from the local Massachusetts authorities to look into the matter or support their customs seizure. Ruefully, they headed back down to Narragansett Bay to report to Robinson and Antrobus.

At this point, one can only imagine the Navy Captain's ire. One indication is the size of the force he took back to Dighton along with Robinson - thirty marines (more than Maidstone's full compliment) and forty armed seamen. On route they met the initial prize crew, which had been prevented from reaching Polly by a mob of over 100 angry men. When they boarded the grounded sloop, they found holes bored through her hull and other damage.

Undeterred, Robinson set out to recover the molasses on shore. Unable to secure a writ of assistance to aid in his search, he was instead confronted by a £ 3,000 damage suit filed by Master Daggett. Without any friends to post his bond, Robinson was jailed for several days while Antrobus worked to get the damaged Polly back to Newport. Just eight casks of Molasses were recovered, and Robinson and Antrobus decided they had had enough of local justice. Because the seizure took place in Massachusetts, they could bring the case to trial in Boston, but they preferred to take their prize to Halifax, instead, where there was an Admiralty Court that covered the entire eastern seaboard and was free from local influence. It would be very difficult for the defendants to call supporting witnesses for a case held at such great remove, but Polly ultimately was taken to Halifax later that summer and condemned as a lawful seizure.

Robinson and Antrobus went to Boston to arrange for the change of venue. Governor Bernard expressed reservations about moving the Admiralty case to Halifax (he would lose his share in any condemnation proceeds) and Antrobus told him, in so many words, to mind his own business. This left Maidstone in the hands of its 1st Lieutenant, Cuthbert Baines. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, at this same time that impressment activity spiked in Newport, culminating in yet another confrontation between the navy and a large waterfront mob, on the King's Birthday, no less. We will discuss what Rhode Islanders remember as the "Maidstone Affair" in the next post in this blog series.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"An Arbitrary Action, Contrary to Law, Inconsistent with Liberty": H.M.S. Maidstone Heads for North America (Part II)

H.M.S. Maidstone (1758), 28 gun Sixth Rate Ship
She was built at Chatham dockyard between October, 1756 and April, 1758 by Thomas Steward of Rochester, one of the Royal Navy's first batch of "Coventry" class frigates.  H.M.S. Maidstone was a sixth rate square rigged ship, and could throw a modest 117 pound broadside weight of metal from the two dozen 9 pound cannons on each side of her 118', 4"gun deck, with another meager 6 pounds from the four 3 pounders on her quarterdeck and a dozen swivels.  She was no ship of the line, but at 593 tons burthen was still among the larger ships of her class and as a post-ship she rated a post-captain as commander.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay by Nicholas Pocock (1812)
Maidstone had a full compliment of about 19 officers (commissioned and warrant, quarterdeck and standing) , 200 men and about 24 marines.  She was commissioned during the Seven Years War under Captain Dudley Diggs and had early success that year in single ship actions along the Normandy Coast.  She also participated in support of larger fleet actions, including serving as one of 5 frigates with the 21 ships of the line under Admiral Hawke at Battle of Quiberon Bay in November, 1759.  Her next commander, Captain Weston Vargo, continued on station in the Channel and along with H.M.S. Rochester and Renommee took the 26-gun frigate La Guirlande in August, 1762.

Maidstone returned to Portsmouth in March, 1763 and paid off her crew.  Her next voyage would have a very different character, no longer a ship at war but an extension of royal authority providing seaborne enforcement of customs regulations in the North American colonies.  Her commander for this commission was Captain Charles Antrobus (1726-1769).  Not much is known about his origins, though he evidently had a brother in Ireland who helped settle his ship's accounts in 1766.  Captain Antrobus made the post-captain's list on February 17, 1758.  His first ship at this rank had been H.M.S. Surprise in 1759 (an older sixth rate launched in 1746), followed by the 5th-rate H.M.S. Southampton (launched in 1757) which he commanded from 1760-1763.  He was given H.M.S. Maidstone as his next ship.

Cuthbert Baines
Maidstone's other commissioned officers under Captain Antrobus were 1st Lieutenant Cuthbert Baines (1743-1810) and 2nd Lieutenant Jenkins. Cuthbert Baines was born in Suffolk, the fifth son of John and Elizabeth Baines.  He first went to sea in the merchant service at the age of 12 but soon joined the navy as Captain's apprentice and a seaman. He was rated midshipman in 1758 and commissioned as Lieutenant on March 11, 1761.  He was appointed First Lieutenant of Maidstone on April 19th, 1763 while at Gibraltar. 

2nd Lieutenant Jenkins was William Jenkins, who according to the Navy List was commissioned lieutenant on August 6th, 1762.  Lieutenant Jenkins would play a significant part in the events that lead to rioting in Newport over customs seizures and naval impressment in 1765 but vanishes from the known record thereafter.  I have a theory about what happened to him that I'll discuss in a subsequent post.

Ship model, Admiralty Dockyard model, HMS "Maidstone", 
wood / ivory, made by Stephen Bingle,
Royal Naval Dockyard, Chatham, Kent, England, c. 1756

Although H.M.S.  Maidstone's logs and muster books survive from this period in the British National Archives at Kew, I have not had access to them. The only other named men that I have discovered are the purser (one W. Mortimer) and his clerk John Bell, Jr.  There would have been other warrant officers (the Master and Surgeon), along with perhaps four Midshipmen, a Marine Lieutenant, and other specialists, including the bosun, gunner, carpenter, sailmaker and their mates, a cook and the Captain's clerk. The rest of the ship's 190 or so seamen were rated able, ordinary or landsmen according to their experience and ability.  Many, perhaps half of the ship's company would have been pressed into service when they joined the navy, and a few deserted while Maidstone was refitting in Portsmouth prior to sailing for America in the summer of 1763.

H.M.S. Maidstone would be joining The North American squadron under Rear Admiral of the White Alexander Lord Colville, a Scottish peer who was charged with patrolling the American coast between Nova Scotia and Florida with his headquarters at the naval base in Halifax.  All of the 21 ships in Colville's squadron were dispatched from various ports in England in the summer of 1763, replacing those previously on station.  Their primary task was to enforce trade and navigation laws, but also to discourage the French from any ideas of regaining a hold in Canadian waters.

Captain Antrobus sailed from Spithead with H.M.S. Maidstone on July 3, 1763.   It must have been a rough crossing, for another ship brought news to Halifax on September 30th that "the Maidstone, Captain Antrobus has sprung her formast and has put in to Louisberg [Nova Scotia]."  Still, the ship was in much better shape than her sister Frigate H.M.S. Mermaid, which was completed dismasted during her voyage from England and lost her bowsprit as well.  Both Maidstone and Mermaid also required a replacement ships boat while under repair in Nova Scotia, which the Admiral ordered from Boston in February, 1764.

There are few indications of Maidstone's activity before she arrived and took up station in Newport, Rhode Island in December, 1764.  A Boston diarist noted her arrival at Nantasket Roads on September 23, 1764, but that is about all that can be determined without examining the Admiralty records.  She left a much more extensive record of her activities in Rhode Island.  We will discuss her customs enforcement and naval manning activities in Rhode Island waters in 1765 and the reactions they prompted in Newport in the next post in this series.

"An Arbitrary Action, Contrary to Law, Inconsistent with Liberty": Planning a 1765 Naval Impressment Scenario in Newport, Rhode Island (Part I)

The Liberty of the Subject (1779) by James Gillray
The Newport Historical Society is hosting a Naval Impressment event on August 27th, 2016 for which I and several of my fellows bear a great deal of responsibility.  What began with a casual remark at last year's Stamp Tax Protest about incorporating a proper press gang into our activities has grown to be one of the most eagerly anticipated living history happenings of the Summer, featuring a Royal Navy press gang lead by a teenage Midshipman front and center.  I've done a considerable amount of research for this event, along with Elizabeth Sulock of the NHS who has generously supported our enthusiasm for this idea while ensuring that it serves the interpretive goals of her organization, complies with local permitting requirements, &c.  We owe her and the NHS a debt of gratitude for their support, flexibility and professionalism.

The concept for this scenario is to recreate episodes relating to customs enforcement and naval impressment during June and July, 1765 that were to culminate in the the Newport Stamp Tax riot later that August.  It has attracted some of the finest historical interpreters of the laboring classes in this period - and of 18th century nautical subjects in particular - and among other things has transformed my 13-year-old son into a proper Royal Navy Midshipman to lead the press gang. 

detail from The Press Gang (1770) by Walpole
In addition to depicting sea-officers and sailors from H.M.S "Maidstone", our cast of characters reflects the waterfront and mercantile aspects of Colonial Newport in 1765: a volatile period when customary rights of colonial citizens and their elected authorities were challenged by royal naval assertion of superseding prerogatives and powers that derived from the King. 

Both customs enforcement activity and naval impressment created great friction in Rhode Island and several other North American colonies during the mid-1760s.  To place these conflicts in their proper context requires an examination of both the interpretation and enforcement of laws respecting the collection of customs duties in the colonies following the French and Indian War and manning His Majesty's navy when serving in North America.

The Royal Navy faced a serious manning problem when stationed outside home waters.  On a two year voyage, losses to illness, accidents and desertion could leave vessels stranded in port without enough capable hands to operate the ship.  These conditions persisted even in peacetime, though the legality of impressment as a means to address this problem was highly questionable in those brief periods in the 18th century when Britain was not at war.

The conditions under which impressment could be used, against whom it could be employed, and under what legal authority, were understood quite differently in the 18th century when it occurred in home waters than when in British colonial possessions overseas.  The King and his sea-officers generally did not consider the sovereign's right to press seamen to maintain the Royal Navy in time of war to be limited by local authority, and the governors of charter colonies like Rhode Island and their seafaring citizens thought otherwise.

Article IX of the "Sixth of Anne" 1708, concerning protection from Impressment in North America and the West Indies
From time to time the Crown did appreciate that excessive impressment of merchant seamen could badly damage trade.  Enacted in 1708, the so-called Sixth of Anne protected merchant seaman in North America and the West-Indies from impressment unless they were Royal Navy deserters.  It was not at all clear that this protection remained in force after Queen Anne's War ended in 1713, and furthermore the colonial governors tended to believe that any impressment in areas under their jurisdiction required their approval to be legal.  The situation became more confused in 1746, when modification were enacted to protect trade in the West Indies by prohibiting impressment without approval of the colonial authorities, but this was not extended to the rest of British North America.  The Sixth of Anne was finally repealed in 1775 at the outset of the American War of Independence, which cleared up any remaining ambiguity as to its continued application in the Colonies. 

detail from Paul Revere's Engraving of British Troops landing at Boston (1768)
Pressed men were most often skilled sailors who subsequently lost their rights as merchant seamen to serve on a vessel of their own choosing for a contracted period of time and the higher wages of the merchant service.  This lose of liberty made the waterfront the front line of resistance to royal authority. 

Resistance to impressment came to a violent head in the American colonies well before the Sixth of Anne was formally abandoned as Crown policy.  In 1747 during King George's War, Admiral Knowles began a "hot press" in Boston that prompted three days of rioting.  In 1760 during the French and Indian War, an impressment attempt in New York Harbor by Captain John Hale of H.M.S. Winchester lead to the repulse of a boarding party by the crew of the merchant ship Samson, who kept up a heavy small arms fire and killed four of the Royal Navy seamen.  In 1769, a standoff between four merchant sailors barricaded in the forehold of the American brig Pitt Packet and a press gang from H.M.S. Rose resulted in the spearing death of Royal Navy Lieutenant Henry Panton.  John Adams defended these merchant sailors at their trial, during which he attempted to use the Sixth of Anne as evidence of the illegality of impressment in North America.  Rather than open that can of worms, Governor Hutchinson adjourned the court, which rendered a verdict of justifiable homicide the following day.

detail from "Ships of the Gun Wharf at Portsmouth (1770) by Serres
The use of impressment in British North America continued after the French and Indian War, in large part because of the expanded naval presence required for its new customs enforcement mission.  The Sugar Act of 1764, combined with more aggressive enforcement of the Navigation and Currency Acts and associated customs duties, put the Royal Navy squarely at odds with the interests of colonial merchants, and seamen, especially in the Northern colonies. 

Colonies like Rhode Island felt deeply constrained by these measures, which limited their trading partners and initially imposed high duties on molasses that lead to an underground economy with increased smuggling. In  The Economic History of Newport Rhode Island from the Colonial era to beyond the War of 1812, author Kenneth Walsh analyzed customs duties on imported molasses in 1769, when import duties had been reduced to just a penny per pound, and concludes that between 2/3 and 3/4 of all molasses carried on Newport ships in that year did not go through customs.

Conditions of lax enforcement, including outright bribery of customs officials, changed after Parliament and the Grenville government assigned the Royal Navy the task of seaborne customs enforcement in the American Colonies.  The Fifth of George III, passed by Parliament in 1765, reinforced the authority of the Royal Navy in spite of opposition from the colonial authorities to make seizures at sea as part of its customs enforcement mission, including

"all seizures made by the commanders or officers of His Majesty's ships or vessels of war, duly authorized for that purpose, anywhere at sea, in, or upon any river, and which shall not be actually made on shore, within any British colony or plantation in America."

This was but one in a series of measures taken by the Grenville government to assert royal authority over local affairs in British North America, where charter colonies like Rhode Island still retained the right to elect their own charters governments and court officials and other Crown colonies had their governors appointed by the King.  Resistance to customs enforcement took place not only on the waterfront but in the local admiralty courts, which often refused to recognize the legality of seizures and sometimes allowed significant damage claims against Royal Navy officers by the owners and crews.  This situation lead to hardened attitudes on the part of thwarted enforcement agents, which in turn could lead to more aggressive use of impressment without regard for customary colonial protections.

Such was the case in Newport in 1765, when the officers of H.M.S. Maidstone confronted a resistant governor, an uncooperative local court system, and acts of defiance by those engaged in smuggling and their supporters.  We will examine the Maistone, her customs enforcement mission, and her Captain's increased use of impressment while stationed at Newport, in the next post in this series.

An 18th century Brigantine

Monday, August 8, 2016

Making Elias a Middy: Recreating a Royal Navy Midshipman, circa 1765

Overmantle painting of Newport Harbor circa 1740
During last year's commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Newport Stamp Tax "Protest", my friend Greg Hurley (one of the rioting seamen) observed that my then twelve-year-old son Elias would make a splendid midshipman, and said that he had always wanted to do a proper press gang scenario lead by an age-appropriate junior naval officer.  The seed of that casual remark germinated into a full on reenactment of an episode of resistance to Royal Navy impressment in Colonial Newport in 1765 that will take place under the auspices of the Newport Historical Society at the end of this month (August 27th, 2016).  Elias will indeed be a 13-year-old Royal Navy midshipman, and I will be among the American seamen opposing his efforts to man H.M.S. Maidstone with pressed seamen from the Colony.

Midshipman Augustus Brine (1782) by Copley
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
It helps that Elias looks remarkably like the adolescent (and even younger) boys who served as Royal Navy midshipmen during the latter half of the 18th Century - the golden age of the mullet.  Because he has hit a major growth spurt, adding as much as an inch of height every six weeks, outfitting him in hand sewn, authentic clothing that he may soon outgrow was a major commitment, but the opportunity to really pull off this impression convinced us to try.

As part of the research for his impression, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the Copley portrait of Augustus Brine, at left, as well as reviewing a number of other images of portraits of Midshipman dating between 1770 and 1782.  Eli and I plan to return to NYC in full seafaring rig in September to pose alongside Copley's wonderful painting of his 18th century doppelganger.

The 1765 period of our depiction was a transitional one in Royal Navy uniforms and included both dress and undress "frock uniform" coats for commissioned naval officers, but just one coat used for all occasions by midshipmen. 

The midshipman, though a young gentleman, straddled the world of the seaman and sea-officer.  Prior to 1748, there was no official uniform prescribed for officers in the Royal Navy.  Orders from the Admiralty in April 13, 1748 specified that

persons acting as Midshipmen should like-wise have a uniform clothing in order to distinguish their Class to be in the Rank of Gentlemen, and give them better credit and figure in executing the commands of their superior officers

Captain John Bentinck and his son William Bentinck
(in the uniform of the Naval Academy at Portsmouth)
painted in 1775 by Mason Chamberlin,
in collection of Royal Museums Greenwich
It took a long time for sea-officers' clothing to become truly uniform, and within twenty years the gorgeous, heavily laced uniforms of Admirals and Captains gave way in 1768 to unlaced frock uniforms being used for formal occasions.  As for the midshipmen, their coats saw minor changed between 1748 and 1774, the most notable being the reduction in size of their white coat sleeve cuffs in accordance with prevailing fashion, and  a white collar tab and button on the outside of the collar instead of wearing the initial high collar of 1748 turned down to expose the white lining.  Buttons were either gold or brass, but the distinctive anchor associated with uniform buttons of sea-officers of higher rank after 1787 are extremely rare in portraits of midshipmen prior to the end of the American Revolution.  As Elias's coat was intended for sea service in the mid-1760s and perhaps beyond until he outgrows it, we settled on a coat that would work well from about 1765 to the end of the American Revolution.

Matthew Brenckle, an historian with the U.S.S. Constitution whose thesis research included examination of an extraordinary range of surviving artifacts and textiles recovered from 18th century shipwrecks, made both the Midshipman's coat and hat for Elias's impression.   During our event at Newport, Matthew will portray 1st Lieutenant Cuthbert Baines of H.M.S. Maidstone, a 6th rate ship on customs duty in North America between 1763-1766.  The precise cut of the uniform coat was determined by him, including the pleated skirts and dropped waist.  

Our choices for an appropriate wool were extremely limited.  Had their been any available, the most expensive option
RN Midshipman's Coat 1765-1782
by Matthew Brenckle
would have been to use Kochan & Phillips Superfine, but happily we discovered an excellent alternative that proved to be a perfect color match for surviving British navy coats of this period.  This was from Burnley & Trowbridge, listed as Indigo Fine Wool Broadcloth.  It is a shade too light for Continental Army uniforms but perfect for our purposes, and cheaper by 350% than K&P.   The coat lining and cuffs are white wool that Matthew had on hand, and the sleeves are also appropriately lined.  We used large, slightly domed gold plated buttons for the coat front and the non functional sleeve placets for its distinctive mariner's cuffs.  The coat has false buttonholes and closes with two hooks and eyes. The hat was made from rabbit fur felt and features a silk cockade and gold wire loop and button.  Matt is an incredible tailor and hatter and was extremely generous with his time and effort for this project.

As for small clothes, there were several factors to consider.  The greatest of these was to find a tailor willing to take on this project after an initial proposal with another tailor fell through due to completely understandable life challenges.  Much to my delight and relief, the partner of one of the other regular participants at Newport living history events agreed to take on not only Elias's waistcoat and trowser needs for this impression but also a pair of breeches he badly needed in order to participate in other events last June.  Lorraine Scripture did a phenomenal job with all three hand-sewn garments using measurements and materials that I provided and I recommend her work most highly.
I decided to go with a more formal waistcoat in Natural White K&P wool backed and lined in 5.75oz.
Waistcoat fabric and notions
100% Shirt Linen from William Booth, Draper.  The waistcoat has 5/8" small slightly domed gold gilt buttons from Benno's Buttons and Trimmings, and they are corded so that other buttons could be substituted if desired. 

Because Elias is growing very rapidly and because he will be leading a shore party on press duty, I elected to go with less formal trowsers rather than breeches.  These were made from
100% Hemp 12.5 oz Russia Sheeting from Wm. Booth, Draper and would have been issued directly from the ship's slops.  There are several portraits of midshipman and naval cadets between 1775-1782 wearing trowsers, including HRH Prince William Henry, Midshipman of H.M.S. Prince George.  The Prince wears his trowsers long, and Elias has some room in the leg as well as the waist in his pair.  With luck he will still be able to use them next year, though undoubtedly with ankles bare.
H.R.H. Prince William Henry (1782)
 engraving after Benjamin West

Elias wears a black silk neck handkerchief and clocked silk stockings (though the latter are barely visible).  He has a plain white linen shirt but I fashioned a small jabot for him to wear poking above the waistcoat collar and beneath the neck cloth.  His long blond hair will be left loose and undressed, which is startling to some 18th century reenactors who expect his hair to be worn in a formal queue, but is true to naval fashion in this period.  HRH Prince William Henry (shown at right) wears his in a queue, but other Middies, be the lordings or middlings, are shown in portraits with their locks unbound. 

Likewise, while midshipmen of the Napoleonic period wore a distinctive dirk, those of the mid to latter 18th century seem to have carried hangers or cutlasses more typical of this period, most often shown in portraits as worn from a waist belt carriage.  After much deliberation, I elected to have Elias carry a 1750s -1770s era hanger with a lion's head pummel, worn with a 1750's era waist belt with a Double D buckle, the latter of which I already owned.  Very little of this belt is visible but what shows is period appropriate.
Midshipman Hickey Brayton (1780)
He also needed new shoes.  Having invested considerable time and treasure in this impression, I decided that he needed shoes appropriate to his station but settled for machine made.   I found what I needed in the smooth side out Ligonier model from Fugawee, with a wide, rectangular pair of roped shoe buckles in tinned brass.

We had the chance to photograph Elias wearing his full kit with Buzzards Bay as the backdrop during a family vacation in Wareham, MA last week.   The impression will have its shakedown cruise this Sunday when he portrays Midshipman John Loring, 3rd youngest of the notorious loyalist Joshua Loring, at the Loring Homestead in Jamaica Plain, Boston. 

Then, on August 27th in Newport,  he will stand in for 2nd Lieut. William Jenkins of H.M.S. Maidstone, 1st Lieut. Cuthbert Baines, acting Commander in the absense of Captain Charles Antrobus.  There will be half a dozen royal navy seamen in authentic 1760s kit serving in his press gang, and a motley crew of wharf rats, coasters, wood-boat men, merchant seamen and other denizens of the town and Colony on hand, as well as a 36-foot RN gig and a 17-foot fishing dory as part of this event.  I'll post more about that in the coming weeks.  

For now, enjoy the debut of Midshipman Elias, the sharpest snotty that ever was.  He has a bit or room to grow in the sleeve and pant leg, a bit more at the waist, which is a blessing considering how fast he is sprouting.